In the travel universe, the word "adventure" gets slapped willy-nilly onto all different kinds of experiences -- because it'll always fit someone's definition. For every freak whose heart-rate won't jump 'til he runs the rapids, there's someone else who gets all giddy over a slow paddle in a canoe. For every questing soul who needs to go all Lawrence of Arabia on a camel in the desert, there's another who gets excited watching birds from behind a bush. It's all a matter of taste: Different strokes, different folks, different adventure. And there's no accounting by age, either: I've met 90-year-olds with hearts like lions, and 20-year-olds as mild as lambs.
The cruise world offers adventure experiences for almost every type, from adrenaline junkies to culture and history hounds. Some are a world away and some will cost you a king's ransom, while others are in your own national backyard and priced to sell. Here's a baker's dozen of great choices, sorted into five easy categories.
Exotic cruises are 1930s movies with hulls. Our heroes are tanned, dressed in khaki, and probably have British accents. They're traveling half a world away, and may be gone for months. (Us? We can take these trips and be back in a couple weeks, but why blow the fantasy?)
1. The Nile. Winding its way through Egypt, the Nile is definitely a candidate for the "most exotic" award, in that old movie, pith helmet, Indiana Jones kind of way. Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.com) offers Nile cruises aboard the 80-passenger Sun Boat IV, sailing from Cairo and visiting Alexandria, the Pyramids of Giza, the temple of Ramses, the great temples at Luxor, and other antiquities.
2. The Amazon. The Amazon is also the world's largest river system, flowing some 4,000 miles through Brazil and Peru, with tributaries extending into Venezuela, Colombia, and Bolivia. Many big, mainstream cruise ships sail up the river's wide Atlantic mouth as part of South America cruises, but if you want real adventure you'll opt for a small ship. GreenTracks (www.greentracks.com) and G.A.P. Adventures (www.gapadventures.com) both offer Amazon cruises aboard recently built riverboats carrying between 20 and 46 passengers, with trips concentrating on wildlife, nature, and encounters with local peoples.
3. The Galapagos. Sitting isolated in the Pacific, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the Galapagos are the islands that made Darwin go "Hmmm." They're now protected as a nature reserve, letting you see the sea lions, giant tortoises, iguanas, and blue-footed boobies in their natural state, via ranger-led hikes. Dozens of small ships cruise the islands, including several operated by Lindblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com), Celebrity Cruises (www.celebrity.com), and Elegant Cruises & Tours (www.elegantcruises.com).
Really, Really Cold Adventure
Brrrr. Didja pack your parka? You'll need it on these trips, which concentrate on the world's polar and arctic regions -- the veritable antithesis of your typical Caribbean cruise.
4. Antarctica. Down at the bottom of the world, Antarctica offers waddling penguins, majestic whales, and ice as far as the eye can see, though global warming has begun melting that ice at an alarming rate. Lindblad Expeditions maintains a big presence here, frequently visiting Lindblad Cove, named for the father of the company's president, who was the first to bring travelers here back in 1965. Other adventure lines operating in the region include Abercrombie & Kent (www.abercrombiekent.com), Quark Expeditions (www.quarkexpeditions.com), Norwegian line Hurtigruten (www.hurtigruten.com), German line Hapag-Lloyd (www.hl-cruises.com), and Elegant Cruises & Tours.
5. The Arctic. At the other end of the earth, several lines offer cruises amid the stark landscapes of the Canadian and Scandinavian arctic, fragile areas that are among those most threatened by global climate change. Hapag-Lloyd offers bilingual 25-day trips that sail the entire Northwest Passage, from western Alaska through the Canadian Arctic, all the way to the coast of Greenland. Cruise North Expeditions (www.cruisenorthexpeditions.com) concentrates on the eastern Canadian Arctic, with several different itineraries exploring Hudson Bay and the coasts of the Labrador, Nunavut, Nunavik, and Baffin Island. Over in Scandinavia, Hurtigruten sails itineraries that visit the Svalbard Archipelago, some 600 miles above the Arctic circle, and also offers cruises concentrating entirely on coastal Greenland. Lindblad and Quark both offers cruises throughout the Scandinavian and Canadian Arctic, but Quark tops everybody with its 16-day expedition aboard a nuclear-powered icebreaker sailing from Murmansk, Russia. Destination? The North Pole.
6. Siberia. Why would anybody go to Siberia, you ask? Answer: It's stunningly, starkly beautiful, dotted with Native communities, hardscrabble Russian port cities, and endless miles of rock and tundra. So far, it's my favorite place I've traveled by ship. Cruise West (www.cruisewest.com) offers cruises that sail from Nome, Alaska, crossing the Arctic Circle before stopping at several Siberian Native villages and natural areas on the Chukchi Peninsula, then sailing south along Alaska's wild western coast to Anchorage. (Or reverse.) Hapag-Lloyd offers a similar cruise that explores Kamchatka -- the peninsula just south of the Chukchi -- then sails down the coast to Japan.
Lest we forget, cruise ships represent only the tiniest fraction among the world's vast fleet of working ships and boats. On these trips you can mix the two, taking a pleasure cruise aboard a ship that's otherwise all business.
7. England, Wales, and the Channel Islands. "Ho-hum," you say. "Great Britain. People speak English there. How adventurous could that be?" Pretty much, if we're talking about cruises aboard the Patricia, a 2,500-ton vessel operated by Trinity House (www.trinityhouse.co.uk), whose job it is to maintain Britain's system of navigational buoys and tend its lighthouses and lightships. As a sideline, she has cabins for 12 maritime enthusiasts, who meld into the rhythm of the ship's work routine while enjoying occasional stops along the coast.
8. The Marquesas Islands. Lying 800 miles equidistant from Hawaii and Tahiti, the lush Marquesas Islands are almost the definition of "cut off." Acting as their lifeline to the outside world, the Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime (www.aranui.com) operates the freighter Aranui III on regular 16-day round-trip voyages from Tahiti, bringing supplies in and carrying dried coconut meat and noni fruit out. There's also room for 200 passengers, who get to experience life on more than a dozen little-visited Polynesian islands, as well as the daily life of a real working ship.
Sounds Buddhist, but sometimes the greatest adventures are right beneath our noses, just waiting to be discovered.
9. Sailing the New England/Canada Coast. A hundred years ago, taking a sailing ship would have been something your dad would do: a little old-fashioned, like listening to music on an 8-track instead of an iPod. Today, though, real sailing is so old it's new. In Maine, the Maine Windjammer Association (www.sailmainecoast.com) represents a dozen owner-operated schooners, some of which date as far back as 1871. The experience is rustic, with no engines and meals cooked on a woodstove. Days are spent relaxing and helping the crew work the sails. Farther north, Canadian Sailing Expeditions (www.canadiansailingexpeditions.com) offers trips along the Newfoundland coast aboard their 245-foot square-rigged barquentine Caledonia. Days are spent whale- and bird-watching, hiking, kayaking, and taking in views along the fjord-dotted coast.
10. Small-Ship Cruising in Alaska. Cruising Alaska on a megaship is like driving the interstate, while doing it on a small coastal ship is like taking the back roads: You just get a better feel for the place. Lindblad Expeditions, Cruise West , and American Safari Cruises (www.amsafari.com) all offer the small-ship experience on the Inside Passage, mixing visits to the larger towns with stops in small fishing villages and natural areas the big ships can't access. Lindblad is the most nature- and learning-oriented of the three, while American Safari offers the most intimacy, with vessels that carry only 12 to 36 passengers.
11. The Erie Canal. When it was built in the 1820s, the Erie Canal was called the Eighth Wonder of the World, stretching 363 miles through a system of locks and aqueducts and linking the Hudson River with Lake Erie. Today, a few small ships sail portions of the canal, offering passengers a window into the 19th century. American Canadian Caribbean Line (www.accl-smallships.com) visits the canal as part of an itinerary that sails between Rhode Island and Quebec City, taking in the Hudson River and Canada's Saquenay River as well. Mid-Lakes Navigation (www.midlakesnav.com) offers 2- and 3-night trips that cover different segments of the canal. Their ship, the clunky 42-passenger Emita II, is a former Casco Bay ferry that was rebuilt for overnight use.
Adventure Afoot & on Wheels
A small niche of the cruise world offers trips that reject the usual bus-tour model of showing passengers the places they're visiting. Instead, these ships stress seeing the ports and sailing regions by foot and bike.
12. The Scottish Hebrides on Foot. Traditionally, people didn't take ships so they could sit aboard and watch things pass by. They took them because they offered access to places it was impossible to visit any other way -- for instance, the small islands off the western coast of Scotland. Hebridean International Cruises (www.hebridean.co.uk) offers four different cruises to this area as part of their "Footloose" program, which ferries passengers from place to place and then sets them off on guided walking tours among the region's villages, castles, lochs, gardens, and nature reserves. German line Peter Deilmann Cruises (www.deilmann-cruises.com) offers similar hiking-oriented voyages in England, Ireland, Scotland, and coastal Norway and Iceland, traveling on the gorgeous, bilingual (German/English) boutique ship Deutschland.
13. France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary by Bike. Like their hiking-themed voyages, Deilmann's biking-themed trips offer you a warm, comfortable place for you and your stuff to stay while you explore a region under your own power. On these trips, passengers sail via Deilmann's fleet of luxury river ships, spending their days on escorted 10- to 36-mile rides through some of Europe's most beautiful towns, forests, wine regions, cities, and countryside.